SARATOGA SPRINGS If you’re driving down Route 50, you may catch a glimpse of the new pumphouse; if you’re driving down a fairway, you won’t.
If you’re a cross country skier, you saw the fences; if you’re a golfer, you didn’t.
Unless you happened to be around when the trees were coming down, you probably won’t be able to tell that they’re gone.
What you will notice at Saratoga Spa State Park Golf Course is that the 18-hole championship course is dramatically more playable than it was as recently as five years ago.
Spurred by an unusual private-public partnership through which director of golf Bill Richardson has been able to pump profits back into the improvement of the course, Spa State Park has been methodically and quietly transformed into a place where it’s easy to get a tee time, the course is lush and a round doesn’t take forever to play.
“Now, we’ve got good momentum, we’re moving in the right direction,” Richardson said.
“The atmosphere here is much different. It’s a much more pleasant place to work than it was. That’s because of the golf course being in much better shape. And it’s also because play is managed so much better than it used to be. You don’t have the constant fighting over pace of play.”
Richardson believes that there remains a perception by many Capital Region golfers that playing Spa State Park requires a significant time commitment, between trying to get a tee time and playing the actual round itself.
Besides that, the course had just enough of an element of scruffiness to possibly leave a lasting impression on anyone who played there.
By funneling money into several key projects, Richardson has been able to incrementally smooth the rough edges on the course and profoundly improve playing conditions, which has gone hand in hand with a concerted effort to make tee times easily accessible and to keep rounds at a comfortable 41⁄2 hours.
In the last four years, the course has spent over $1 million on major projects that include an improved irrigation system, tree removal, better mowers, overseeding, winter fencing, impermeable green covers and bunker sand. One of the first investments toward the resurrection of the course was to purchase a deep tine aerification machine, which gets air deep into the greens without leaving soil plugs all over the place.
The last of the projects to be completed are the bunkers and the irrigation system.
The irrigation project, which includes computer monitoring and work on the pump station and pumphouse, has accounted for almost half a million dollars of the money spent.
“We had to expand the building to make room for the new pumps, and it’s going to be so much better at delivering water and nutrients to the golf course that it’ll make an enormous difference,” Richardson said.
Spa State Park is one of 21 courses that fall under the auspices of the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Department.
They range in scope from nine-hole Wellesley Island to Bethpage, whose Black course was the first public course to host a U.S. Open, in 2002.
Because the course lies on a multi-use state park, Richardson’s improvement plans have been subject to the approval and oversight of the parks department, as well as concern by cross country skiers and park patrons interested in preserving the rich character of the pine forest.
Richardson has tailored the winter fencing to address complaints by cross country skiers and open up more room along the fairways for them.
“[Tree clearing] was a little controversial at the time,” Richardson said. “But since the work has actually been done and people have seen it, the feeling toward it has become overwhelming positive, particularly among the golfers, but even among the non-golfers.
“Sure, there’s concern, if you envision Paul Bunyan coming in and clearing the land, but we’re talking about clearing very selective areas and opening up the golf course to sunlight and air movement.”
Spa State Park, which also has a nine-hole executive course, is in a position to pull off all of these improvements because of Richardson’s arrangement with the state.
As a licensee of the state parks department, Richardson, who has worked at Spa State Park since 1996, pays a substantial rent to the state and is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the course. He can budget some of the annual profit toward the improvement of the course, which he has done in steps each year, since a few years after the pro shop was constructed in 2003.
“At a time when state money is shrinking everywhere, this golf course is still getting substantial investment,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that if we were relying on the state budget for funds to maintain and upgrade the golf course, I don’t think that would be where they would be placing their priorities.”
Because of all the changes, the course is more enjoyable to play, and because of measures taken to streamline the tee time process and keep play moving, players who were disenfranchised by a past experience there may perhaps recall the layout now, but won’t recognize the comfortable conditions.
“They’ll find a very different venue,” Richardson said. “We had people come in last summer saying, ‘Gee, we don’t even need to roll the ball over, we can play summer rules.’
“It really used to be painful. You go through all that effort to get a tee time, and then you get stuck on the fourth hole. By the time you got to the clubhouse, you’re thinking, ‘Let me out of here.’ It’s just not like that anymore, even in the heart of our busy season. We don’t ever overstuff the golf course. You don’t have the constant fighting over pace of play.”
Greens fees for the championship course will remain at 2010 prices: $30 (18 holes) and $18 (nine) on weekdays and $37 and $21 on weekends. For the executive course, it’s $23 and $14 on weekdays, and $26 and $16 on weekends. It’s easy to book a tee time at www.saratogaspagolf.com or by calling 584-2006.
The championship course at Saratoga Spa State Park, whose head pro is Bob Tribley, has five sets of tees.
It’s 5,567 yards from the front set and 7,141 from the back tees.
“I would say that this is a golfer-friendly layout,” Richardson said. “It can be long, but it can also be short. A lot of the course is tree-lined, but the fairways are still ample. But it’s a great golf course to bring your driver and tee it up, as opposed to having to lay up on this hole, play position all the time. Not that that’s bad, but you can stand up there, you can see where you’re going. It’s relatively flat, which I think makes it playable, but also makes it very walkable.
“The greens have come so far. When I first came here in 1996, they were all problematic. The pace was just very, very slow. Several were very unhealthy, too. It’s fun to putt the greens now.”